“An obituary should be more about how someone lived versus the fact that they died,” says Victoria Chang, a Los Angeles-based poet and writer who wrote 70 obituary poems in the two weeks after her mother died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2015. Ever since, Chang has been a student of obituaries, seeking them out in newspapers and alumni magazines. “The diction is very flat and matter-of-fact,” she says. An obituary tends to have three distinct parts: the beginning (name, age, date of death, cause of death [if possible to include], work, education); the middle (anecdotes that celebrate the person’s life); and the end (so-and-so is survived by, which Chang calls “a very efficient way of saying who’s grieving.”)
If the deceased is a public figure, the job of writing an obituary falls to a journalist, probably a stranger. But most who pass will be eulogized by someone in the family. If you’re tasked with writing one, remember that your aim is to center the person’s life and not your grief, profound though it may be. In fact, your sorrow might act as a kind of writer’s block. Chang suggests jotting down the functional bookends first (who died, who survived), and then let yourself free-associate themes and memories that might end up in that middle part. If you’re feeling stuck or you had a difficult relationship with the person, ask friends and relatives for their recollections. “Everyone is special and quirky, and I think the best obituaries capture the essence of those qualities about each of us,” Chang says. What things did she collect? What did she love to eat? What brought her joy?
An obituary is for the living, but you should consider the sensibilities of the deceased. How would the person want to be remembered? “Imagine what they would write about themselves,” Chang says. It’s OK to be funny. “There’s a lot of humor and oddity, strange tensions and funny stuff about people and the things they do together,” Chang says. Obituaries, even simple ones, remind us of our briefness. After watching her mother die, Chang understood in a visceral way for the first time that she, too, would die. She thinks that if people spent more time acknowledging their mortality they’d live differently — kinder, more present. Writing an obituary can be a wake-up call. “This person is dead,” Chang says. “You’re alive.”